How Money Votes: An Oklahoma Story

A few blocks from the U.S. Capitol, in a street-level parking lot owned by the American Trucking Associations, one of those only- in-America scenes unfolded last April. With temperatures hovering near 90 degrees, men and women in expensive suits chafed uncomfortably as they waited in line. Young volunteers sporting bright yellow T-shirts were everywhere, bristling with the enthusiasm of what appeared to be their first political campaign. A crack unit of these scrub-faced ones patrolled the entrance to the lot, seizing the necks of new arrivals, quickly wrapping them in bright yellow bandannas, cowboy-style. In the heat, the added neckwear caused beads of sweat to form, giving the well-heeled attendees a faintly ridiculous air.

Though few tasseled loafers were apparent, the guests were mostly Washington lobbyists, for American Airlines and the National Rifle Association, for Dow Chemical and the Tobacco Institute, for Southwestern Bell and the American Pharmaceutical Association. Representatives of big oil producers like BP America and the American Petroleum Institute rubbed shoulders with drug manufacturers like Merck and Sandoz. Dozens, scores, perhaps more than a hundred milled around the parking lot, munching barbecue and trading gossip about doings in Congress.

In uneasy coexistence with the bleak landscape of the open air parking lot were the signs and sounds of classic American political hoopla, Oklahoma-style. To one side, a two-man band dressed in the cowboy way strummed "The Stray Cat Strut." Further on, a Choctaw tribal chief in full Indian dress stalked about, agreeably having his photo taken with any and all. And standing at the front of the line were the hosts of this celebration: Congressman Bill Brewster and his wife (and partner) Suzie, both dressed in colorful Western attire that put them into high relief among the gray and navy suits.

One by one, the visitors filed past the Brewsters, engaging in a familiar ritual. The lobbyists gripped-and-greeted the member of Congress, murmured a few words, unwrapped the uncomfortable nylon bandanna, and headed for the beer. For two hours, the Brewsters courted their guests, who had paid $500, $1000, or more to attend the event. By day's end, more than $100,000 would flow into Brewster's campaign coffers from individual lobbyists and political action committees.

This is how the game is played.

By the end of 1994, Bill Brewster's campaigns will have raised and spent nearly $2 million since 1989, when Brewster began exploring the possibility of running for Congress. This article is the story of that $2 million -- the story of how a working politician forms a practical, permanent alliance with big money and how that alliance taints the governing process.

Why Bill Brewster? He is emblematic of the system. He stands, politically and geographically, at Congress' dead center. A conservative Democrat, Brewster has little seniority in the House. But he is an influential member of the House's most important committee, Ways and Means, which gives him a head start raising money.

Brewster's is the tale of how a rising politician learns to tap national financial sources rather than local ones. It is also the story of how these powerful national financiers reward incumbents by providing them with a surfeit of money -- enough to ward off any challengers who might disrupt the status quo. There are questions of legality here. A close look at Brewster's record suggests that some of his fundraising practices may have broken federal elections laws. But for the most part, Brewster's story is a vivid illustration of what the system still permits: fundraising practices that skew politics in favor of wealthy interests, thus promoting cumulative disaffection with the democratic process.

The evidence for this article was pieced together from Federal Election Commission records, data on file with the Oklahoma Council on Campaign Compliance and Ethical Standards, U.S. House of Representatives financial disclosure forms, and data compiled by the private National Library on Money and Politics. I also conducted dozens of interviews, including two with Brewster himself.

Thanks to the periodic FEC reports that are required from every candidate for Congress, it is possible to trace the origin of nearly every dollar that finds its way into a campaign treasury. However, it is not so easy to find out why contributors support a candidate financially. The methods by which candidates manage to obtain those dollars are not readily apparent, either. In the following, we will try to answer some of those questions.

The parking lot at the American Trucking Associations, where Bill Brewster held court with the nation's lobbyists on April 26, is half a continent and a world away from the part of Oklahoma Bill Brewster calls home. Born in 1941 in Ardmore (population 20,000) in Carter County, the Brewsters now live on a ranch south of Marietta in Love County. Carter and Love counties, which form the southwest corner of the 22-county Third District, sit just north of the Red River that separates Oklahoma from Texas, in the middle of America's oil patch, about halfway between Oklahoma City and Dallas, Texas.

The district is one of the nation's poorest, populated by hardscrabble farmers who eke out a living growing peanuts and raising cattle, chicken, and hogs. Almost entirely rural -- along with Ardmore, only the towns of Stillwater and Shawnee count more than 20,000 people -- the area's farms are often punctuated by a lone oil rig slowly nodding up and down like some giant bird pecking at insects.

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Dead armadillos litter the roadways, and the towns themselves show severe signs of wear and tear. The main streets in both Ardmore and Marietta are sadly barren and lifeless, marked by closed businesses and buildings whose paint is peeling off in great flakes. In county after county in the Third, as many as 20 to 25 percent of the people live in poverty, and many are on welfare.

The Third's voters are hard-working, conservative, God-fearing Democrats. The area's nickname is "Little Dixie," reflecting the migration of poor, southern whites into what was then known as Indian Territory before Oklahoma statehood in 1907. They brought with them the southerner's animosity toward anything Republican -- and while the rest of the South is increasingly embracing the Republican Party, Oklahoma's Little Dixie remains resolutely a "yellow dog Democratic" district. Over 80 percent of the voters are registered Democrats. As one Oklahoma politician says, "They spray for Republicans in Little Dixie."

To be sure, these voters are not limousine liberals. By all accounts, most of the Third's constituents oppose gun control and abortion, support prayer in schools, and are wary of anything that happens in Washington. They are fiercely patriotic -- as evidenced by popular bumper stickers like "Fly Our Flag, Don't Burn It!" In Paul's Valley, on the district's edge, Bob's Pig Shop sports a sign out front that says, "Rambo for D.A." Gun shops are everywhere. A billboard proclaims, "This town belongs to Jesus."

The overwhelmingly Democratic nature of the Third District has meant that its representatives in Congress enjoy a rare form of longevity. Since 1947, only three men have represented Oklahoma's Third: Carl Albert, who served from 1947 to 1977 and was Speaker of the House; Wes Watkins, who served from 1977 to 1991, and who left to run for governor; and Bill Brewster, elected in 1990. Unless Brewster chooses to run for higher office, and barring a major scandal, it is widely assumed that Brewster will be a member of Congress for decades to come.

Running for Congress was unlike anything Bill Brewster had ever done before. His earlier campaigns for Oklahoma's House of Representatives in 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1988 were low-dollar affairs. State records on file in Oklahoma City show that in 1988 Brewster raised a total of $1,500 for his campaign, two-thirds of which came in the form of a $1,000 cash contribution from a fellow legislator.

That pattern changed in 1989. As required by state law, Brewster filed campaign financing disclosure forms with the Oklahoma Council on Campaign Compliance and Ethical Standards for 1989-90. But those forms, sketchy in the best of times, are sloppy and incomplete, making a thorough analysis very difficult. What the records do show is that Brewster raised far more funds than for the previous cycle, at least $26,710. There is very little to indicate how the money was spent; for much of it there is simply no account. But a major portion of it, nearly $11,000, was used not to finance his re-election to the state legislature but to launch his bid for Congress. Such transfers of funds, now illegal under FEC rules, were permitted in 1990.

Although Brewster announced his decision to run for Congress at the end of January 1990, it had been widely known that the incumbent member, Wes Watkins, a Democrat, was considering a race for governor, meaning that the Third district would be up for grabs. As early as the summer of 1989, Brewster had begun putting out feelers to explore the possibility of running for Congress should Watkins abandon the seat. Thus, every dollar Brewster raised in 1989 and 1990 could be tapped to commission polls, pay for travel, and buy advertising -- which, in turn, allowed him to enhance his name recognition and assess his prospects for a run at Congress. When Brewster finally did announce his intentions to run for the Third district's seat, he officially transferred exactly $10,995.32 from his state campaign to his U.S. congressional campaign fund.

Only a few weeks earlier, however, state records show that Brewster received a $5,000 campaign contribution from an Ardmore, Oklahoma, oil man named Harold Holden. Even under the FEC rules at the time, most of that money could not legally be transferred into Brewster's new campaign. Under FEC rules, no individual is allowed to contribute more than $1,000 to any single federal candidate in a given contest (primaries and general elections are considered separate races). Because Harold Holden's $5,000 exceeded the FEC limits on individual contributions, it could not legally have been applied to a federal campaign.

Given the passage of time, poor record-keeping, and vagueness of memory, it is no longer possible to determine if Holden's $5,000 was spent on Brewster's campaign for state office or was included in the $10,995 that was transferred into his federal campaign. But either way, a substantial contribution from a single individual helped launch Brewster's first foray into national politics. We will soon come across oil man Harold Holden again, under more worrisome circumstances.

Not for nothing had Bill Brewster spent eight years in the Oklahoma state legislature positioning himself as a pro-business, Chamber of Commerce Democrat. And seldom had anyone had as substantial and diverse ties to the business community as he had in the Third District and the state of Oklahoma.

But Brewster would not have a cakewalk into Congress. A tough race was shaping up against a worthy opponent in the Democratic primary -- he would face Lieutenant Governor Robert S. Kerr III, scion of one of Oklahoma's premier families, whose father was a member of the board of directors of the Kerr-McGee oil company and whose grandfather had been a powerful U.S. Senator. As an underdog, Brewster knew that he would require several hundred thousand dollars to mount a credible campaign.

Though relatively well-to-do, Brewster also knew that he could not hope to finance his campaign with his own funds. According to a letter on file at the FEC, Brewster had assets of slightly more than $1 million and a net worth of $695,000 at the time he launched his campaign for Congress. While that amount certainly placed him amongst a tiny elite in rural Love County, most of his wealth was tied up in a home, a cattle ranch, mining investments, and IRAs. He would have to raise money, a lot of it -- and fast.

Joe Elles of Marietta, Brewster's first campaign treasurer, notes that Brewster had organic ties to the local small business community. "Being a pharmacist by trade, that put him in a pretty lucrative position with the medical community. He'd been in the ranching business, served in a leadership position in the breeders' association, so that gave him an inherent inroad to the cattlemen. Him and his wife have both been involved in real estate for some time, as agents and brokers. He's had an auto dealership," says Elles. "He just had all the right ingredients."

Brewster tapped each of those small business networks in the early stages of the campaign, during February and March 1990. In the Third district, says a former Brewster staffer, "It's early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise. That's how you make it." Virtually every meeting they had turned into a fundraiser, he said. "They'd give up a hundred dollars here and ten dollars there, and a tankful of gasoline here and someone would feed him there."

Although Elles says that the campaign "had quite a few barbecues, donations of hogs and calves," four out of every five dollars raised by Brewster in those two months came not from small contributors but from high-dollar donors (over $200), PACs, and the leftover funds from his state legislature campaign. Still, for the most part it was local money. Out of 77 big contributors who donated to Brewster in the first two months of his campaign, 53 came out of three small towns: Ardmore, Madill, and Marietta, and almost all of them came from Oklahoma. The majority listed themselves as "self-employed," and as their occupation listed "investments," "attorney," or "oil/gas/ranch." Many of the contributions were dated either March 12, March 28, or March 30, indicating fundraisers were held on those dates. The $35,000 raised from these 77 contributors allowed Brewster to jumpstart his campaign with money from a small but wealthy elite in southeastern Oklahoma.

At the beginning, PAC money was difficult to come by. The nature of PACs, as every student of campaign financing knows, is that they like to back winners. As a rule, PAC money favors incumbents over challengers or long shots, simply because incumbents are more likely to win and are already in a position to be helpful to the donor. But in the first few weeks of his campaign, Brewster did win the backing of a handful of PACs.

Brewster's first PAC money was a check for $4,950 from the National Rifle Association (NRA). (Just to be on the safe side, the NRA also donated an identical sum to Bobby Kerr, Brewster's opponent.) The NRA would stay on as a "Brewster booster" for the next four years, and eventually Brewster would join the NRA's board of directors. Not to be outdone by her husband, Suzie Brewster is a gun enthusiast who is constantly seen in gun clubs and on shooting ranges, and who, in Washington, coaxed a passel of congressional wives to take up shooting. Today, Brewster is the co-chairman of the Sportsman's Caucus in the House, and his office wall displays a photograph of him out duck hunting with President Clinton.

Two more $5,000 checks arrived from the PACs of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and the National Association of Pharmacists, both of whom hoped to cash in on the candidate's background as a licensed pharmacist. Along with a $2,000 contribution from the nurses' PAC, Brewster managed to raise a not-too-shabby $20,700 from PACs in the first 8 weeks of his campaign. But the best was yet to come.

Just outside Bill Brewster's old window at the Oklahoma Capitol Building, there is a striking view of an oil derrick. In fact, out just about any window of the capitol is an oil derrick, because the steel towers are scattered everywhere on the capitol plaza -- a fitting symbol of the power of the oil and gas industry in the former capital of the oil patch, Oklahoma.

There is a lot of oil money in Oklahoma, and oil money is political money. During his eight years as a state legislator, Bill Brewster assiduously cultivated Oklahoma's oil men. In 1985, he took over the economic development committee in the state legislature, and he soon won the "Legislator of the Year" award from the Oil Marketing Association. He chaired the energy committee of the National Council of State Legislators and was elected chairman of the powerful South/West Energy Council.

Oil money is what pushed Bill Brewster over the top in 1990. From April to November 1990, 32 oil and gas company PACs backed Brewster's bid for Congress. Phillips PAC led the field with $7,500, and Amoco, Atlantic Richfield, Chevron, Exxon, Occidental, Shell, Sun, Texaco, Union and many others joined in. In all, including utility company PACs, Brewster raised nearly $39,000 from energy and mining PACs in 1990.

Besides oil PAC money, Brewster pulled in tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy independent oil men. It is difficult to determine exactly how much, because oil money comes not only from people who own and operate oil companies but from oil equipment people, investors, oil industry lawyers, bankers who finance oil industry operations, and friends, relatives, and acquaintances of oil industry folks. Using a conservative estimate based on FEC records, the Brewster 1990 campaign gathered upwards of $40,000 from Oklahoma's oil and gas industry through individual contributions.

Patrick Raffaniello, chief of staff for Brewster, was in early 1990 executive director of the South/West Energy Council, located just outside of Dallas, and FEC records show that Pat and Kyle Raffaniello each donated $1,000 to Brewster's campaign on March 30, 1990. The council served as a nexus for state legislators from oil patch states to meet and work alongside representatives of major oil interests, and according to an Oklahoma legislator who served with Brewster, Raffaniello was a frequent visitor to Oklahoma City and "managed to steer a lot of big energy money to Brewster." A New Yorker by origin, Raffaniello caused a lot of grumbling in Oklahoma when he was appointed chief of staff by Brewster in 1993. "He got the job because he's a big-time fundraiser," said a former Oklahoman who has worked on Capitol Hill.

This is where Harold Holden enters the story again. Holden, you may remember, was the owner of Holden Energy Corporation. His $5,000 contribution to Brewster's state legislature campaign early in 1990 helped position Brewster for his congressional campaign. Holden Energy, described by the Daily Oklahoman as "one of the nation's largest independent energy companies," was only one of several companies owned and operated by the Holden family; others included Safe Tire Disposal Corp., Environmental Thermal Systems, and Red Fork Construction Co. According to several sources in Oklahoma, Holden has been one of Bill Brewster's key backers since at least 1989. Holden and Brewster had been friends for years, since Brewster served in the state legislature.

Last year, Holden was indicted and pled guilty to campaign financing abuses in connection with Oklahoma Governor David Walters' 1990 campaign. The FBI and then an Oklahoma City grand jury investigated a pattern of illegal campaign donations by Harold Holden, his family, employees, friends, and business associates. In October 1993, Holden pled guilty to making 16 illegal campaign donations totaling $32,000 during the 1990 race for governor. He was ordered to pay a fine of $21,280 and received a two-year suspended sentence.

According to the indictment, in order to evade the $5,000 limit on individual campaign contributions to a state candidate, Holden distributed $32,000 to employees, friends and business associates, who in turn funneled the money into the race for governor. Just to be on the safe side, half of the illegal money was channeled into Walters's coffers and half of it went to the campaign war chest of Walters's Republican opponent, Bill Price. Campaign records -- backed up by subpoenaed evidence of bank transactions -- show that Holden's $32,000 was paid out to at least 16 individuals, who, within a period of a couple of days, wrote personal checks to the Walters and Price campaigns.

FEC records reveal a highly interesting pattern to the Holden- Brewster connection. On the eve of the primary election, at an extremely critical moment in the race between Brewster and Kerr, at least 12 individuals made $1,000 contributions to Bill Brewster. Five of them were named in the indictment of Harold Holden in connection with the governor's race, along with three of their wives and several other Holden associates who came under investigation during the Grand Jury procedures. Most came on the same day, August 23, 1990. The individuals include Scott Holden, Harold's son, along with employees of Holden Energy, Safe Tire, Environmental Thermal Systems, and Red Fork Construction, and attorneys and consultants who worked for Holden at the time.

The contributions stand out boldly because most of them are listed, one by one, on identical FEC reporting forms under the heading of "last-minute contributions" on August 23, just five days before the August 28 primary. On that same day, for the first time in the eight-month-long campaign, Bill and Suzie Brewster put up $35,000 in personal funds -- money that Brewster apparently used to purchase a blitz of election-eve television commercials.

The TV commercials may well have pushed Brewster over the top. Kerr says polls showed him 15 points up less than a week before the vote. The final tally was 67,069 votes for Brewster and 54,471 for Kerr.

One plausible motivation for Harold Holden to funnel such extraordinary amounts of money into Brewster's campaign could be gratitude. In 1989, Bill Brewster sponsored a piece of state legislation that became law on July 1, 1989, called the Oklahoma Waste Tire Recycling Act (Oklahoma Title 68, Section 53001). This act created a state fund to pay for the recycling and disposal of millions of used auto and truck tires that were despoiling the state in dumps, valleys, and along roadways. The law established a $1 tax on the sale of new tires, 85 cents of which is paid to private tire recyclers for the collection, shredding and disposal of the tires.

Only one firm qualified for the program: Harold Holden's Safe Tire Disposal Corp., which, headed by Scott Holden, has collected more than $7 million since 1989 from the state of Oklahoma. "The law was written in such a way that it established a virtual monopoly for Holden's company," said an Oklahoma legislator.

Joe Elles, Brewster's campaign treasurer in 1990, recalls that Holden and his associates were big contributors to the Brewster campaign, but four years later does not recall much detail. "The Holdens hosted an event for Bill Brewster," he says, though Elles did not attend it. "Bill was doing everything he could to accumulate funds and they were appealing to quite a few people."

The Brewster campaign was unaware that Holden had given money illegally to the governor's race, Elles says, adding that he was careful to make sure that the campaign followed FEC rules carefully. But he adds that the campaign would not have known had Holden decided to channel funds through friends and associates. "You know, if they have a fundraiser and x number of people show up and contribute by individual checks, well, you just go from one place to another on the campaign trail. What contacts Bill and he [Holden] may have had, I can't speak to that."

But Pat Raffaniello, Brewster's chief aide, is unequivocal that there was no wrongdoing in connection with Holden. "All of the contributions that we received were legitimate and disclosed and all within the spirit and letter of the law," he says. "Nobody in the campaign has any knowledge of anybody violating any of the campaign laws."

And, concerning Harold Holden's $5,000 contribution to Bill Brewster's state legislature campaign fund, Raffaniello says, "I am confident that there was no illegal transfer of funds."

Holden did not return repeated phone calls.

In November 1990, against a little known and underfunded Republican opponent in the overwhelmingly Democratic Third, Bill Brewster stampeded to victory with 80 percent of the vote.

The second chapter of Bill Brewster's life in Congress began when the newly elected congressman and his wife began their journey to Washington, D.C. The freshman from Oklahoma reveled in the highly charged political atmosphere in the nation's capital. He loved the nonstop politicking, the network building, the aura of power that attached to the office of U.S. Representative. Shaky at first in matters of protocol, he leaned on other members of the Oklahoma delegation, in particular Dave McCurdy, and he developed a very close working relationship with Sen. David Boren, vocal advocate of campaign finance reform. Bemused by the ways of Washington -- he once expressed his shock at seeing Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.), who is gay, dancing with another man at a congressional event -- he nonetheless plunged in, building the connections and reputation that would catapult him into the Ways and Means Committee in just two years.

Unlike the vast majority of Democrats, Brewster received virtually no backing from organized labor. Most of the biggest PACs in Washington are labor PACs, and Democrats receive enormous sums from unions. However, Brewster had feuded with the AFL-CIO in Oklahoma ever since the 1980s, when he carried the banner for anti-union right-to-work legislation. Between February 1990 and December 1993, a period of 47 months, Bill Brewster received a mere $36,350 from labor PACs, just 5 percent of his total PAC receipts of $670,465. In contrast, the average Democrat in Congress who accepted PAC money received one-third of it from labor PACs.

In the House, Brewster landed a spot on the Public Works and Transportation Committee, which is known for its pork barrel politics, often funding pet projects in members' districts. As a result, in addition to his already established backing from energy and health care interests, Brewster began to attract significant support from transportation and construction interests. Railroads, trucking companies, air transport interests, and builders gravitated to Brewster, funneling $39,500 in PAC money into his campaign warchest. The total represented more than three times the $12,200 he received from these interests in 1990.

And, now that Brewster was an incumbent, PACs reluctant to back an upstart found their way to Brewster. In every sector -- energy, health care, banking, agriculture -- Brewster's PAC totals rose sharply. Some businesses that had stayed away from Brewster in 1990 began lining up to support him because of his reputation as an outright supporter. Most ironic, perhaps, was the case of Kerr-McGee, a major energy company in Oklahoma with close ties to its namesake family, that of Robert S. Kerr III, Brewster's 1990 primary opponent. For six months in 1990, Brewster shied away from Kerr-McGee's Washington office, though the two eventually reconciled, with Kerr-McGee making a $1,000 PAC donation to Brewster.

The paradox of Brewster's first year in Congress is that while his fundraising totals rose dramatically, he faced no real threat in either the primary or general election of 1992. In the first six months of 1991, with the election behind him and no likely challengers in the wings, Brewster raised $108,805.

Enter Harold Holden once more. Holden's family, including Holden, his son and daughter, employees and associates once again came through handsomely; this time they kicked in a total of $20,000 in identical $1,000 contributions between June 24 and June 29, 1991.

Another Oklahoma heavyweight, oil man Mike Cantrell of Oklahoma Basic Economy, Inc., began organizing fundraisers for Brewster in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, each of which pulled in over a hundred people. Like most big givers, Cantrell denies any attempt to influence the way Brewster votes. "Money's not going to have any influence on where he stands at all," says Cantrell. "People give money to someone that has the same interests that they have." During 1991, with the help of a growing number of PAC contributions, the campaign managed to gather more than $210,000.

Brewster was following in the footsteps of his Third district predecessor, Rep. Wes Watkins. Watkins says that he attempted to keep "a defense fund, which I think a smart politician's got to do .... I think I'd carry something in the way of a couple of hundred thousand dollars, so you could get geared up fast if you had to." The money, Watkins said, served as a deterrent against a potential opponent who might be considering a race against him.

In the end, the November 1992 general election pitted Brewster against a 25-year-old teaching assistant who spent a total of $6,338. Brewster won with 75 percent of the vote.

As a sophomore, Bill Brewster shrewdly catapulted himself into the major leagues, securing a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee, the most powerful committee of all. Such a feat was nearly unprecedented for a second-term member, and it took help from some of Brewster's campaign financiers to make it happen.

Because of the high turnover in the House after the 1992 vote, then Chairman Dan Rostenkowski had to fill an unusually high number of seats on the committee. And because the committee's membership is traditionally balanced among regions of the country, Brewster knew that he had a shot to fill one of the slots accorded to the southwest. Brewster had shown Rostenkowski that he was a hard worker (Ways and Means is not kind to dilettantes) and it was known that the chairman wanted a conservative to offset liberals on the committee.

According to several sources, Brewster had influential, behind-the-scenes assistance from oil lobbyist J.D. Williams, one of the capital's premier power brokers and an Oklahoman who knew Rostenkowski well. In addition, sources report, Brewster had the backing of the National Rifle Association. Two powerful House committee chairs, John Dingell and Jack Brooks, both of whom are very close to the NRA, reportedly backed Brewster, urging Rosten- kowski to elevate the junior Oklahoma Democrat. He did.

Joining Ways and Means opened the floodgates for campaign money. Marvelling at the newfound power of joining Ways and Means, a former Brewster staffer says, "That takes you out of the also-rans and puts you in with the big boys. It was almost as if we were freshmen again. A whole new group of people started coming into the office after he got on Ways and Means."

By the end of 1993, at least 313 individual PACs donated a total of $230,248 to Brewster's campaign, and 1993 was not even an election year. Again, in every category -- agriculture, banking and finance, energy, health, transportation, and communications -- contributions increased. The pace continued in 1994, making it likely that Brewster will pull in close to $1 million in PAC and individual donations for the 1993-94 cycle, more than twice what he raised as a freshman.

The record shows that over Brewster's career, PACs have become increasingly involved in the Oklahoman's campaigns with each succeeding election cycle -- and, each year, less and less of Brewster's funds came from his district and state. During the 1990 campaign, running for an open seat, Brewster managed to raise a total of $448,824, 37 percent ($173,244) of which came from PACs. During the 1991-1992 campaign, 62 percent ($266,973) of Brewster's total receipts of $423,953 came from PACs. In the current 1993-1994 cycle, as of July 1, 1994, fully 71 percent ($519,336) of his campaign contributions was PAC money -- out of a total $728,191.

The rising tide of PAC contributions to Brewster between 1990 and 1994 puts him among Congress' elite for his ability to tap into the PAC community. In 1992, for example, the average winner of a House race drew just 42 percent of his or her funds from PACs.

Back in Oklahoma, though, Ways and Means seemed a lot less important than in Washington. Mack Stafford, Brewster's campaign treasurer, says that while the PACs are impressed with the congressman's position, Ways and Means does not have a lot of significance in the Third District. "A lot of people don't even know what the Ways and Means Committee is, down here in rural Oklahoma," he says.

To organize Brewster's Oklahoma fundraising operation, in 1993 the campaign established what it calls "the Century Club." Brewster boosters who contribute $100 or more to the campaign were invited to a lively fundraiser. First held last August in the town of Shawnee, the event included big-name country singers, barbecue, a 10-minute Brewster video, and speeches by Bill and Suzie Brewster to the assembled crowd of 500 well-wishers. The get-together probably raised $50,000 to $100,000, and another one is planned for this year.

At the Shawnee get-together, a select group of larger contributors, those donating $500 or more, were invited to join "the Medallion Club." About 100 people did so, attending a more private gathering in December at the Brewsters' home south of Marietta on a Sunday afternoon.

Stafford says that the Century and Medallion clubs allow the campaign to organize its fundraising more smoothly, consolidating a lot of statewide effort into a couple of central events, putting contributors on a computerized mailing list and sending them a quarterly newsletter. "So we don't have to go into each county and have individual fundraisers," he says. "It's an insider-type deal."

Asked why people give money to Brewster, especially since he appears to have no opponent, Stafford disclaims any quid pro quo. Instead, he describes a kind of harmony of interests. "I would say the main motivation is that people really believe in Bill Brewster," he says. "The energy people believe in him because they know he'll watch out for their best interests in energy. The agriculture people know he'll watch out for their best interests in agriculture." And so on.

I spoke to contributors in the Third District, but few were able to articulate a concrete reason for giving money. Some, like Madill, Oklahoma, lawyer Dan Little, had known the Brewsters for years and were "political friends." Others, like Jim Gunn of Stillwater, had explicit organizational reasons for backing the Brewster campaign. Last year, Gunn contributed $800, but he made it clear that his decision is shaped by larger forces. "I belong to an organization called the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting, based in Washington, D.C.," he said. "We have a program in which we commit to give, not a lot of money, but $1,000 a year, and basically we give it wherever it is determined by the organization that it be placed." Why? "We'd like to be able to have an opportunity to talk to people," he says. "They have to listen and sift, and we just want to be part of the listen-and-sift process... One sure way that people recognize you is that your name has been signed on the bottom of a check."

Nonetheless, Oklahoma-based fundraising is becoming less important to Brewster. Roy Dering, a Brewster critic who writes for the Ada Evening News, says, "He's getting big money, PAC money. That ... says to me one of two things: he's not seeking money from home, or he's not getting it. He's getting support from big-money interests. And that's the kind of thing people get upset about, about losing touch with us."

The data support Dering's comments. In the three months ending June 30, 1994, for example, Bill Brewster raised more than $200,000, 80 percent of which came from PACs. From Ardmore, Madill, and Marietta -- the area of Oklahoma where Brewster got his start, he raised only $2,750 during those three months, $1,000 of which came from Harold and Scott Holden.

Suzie Brewster is an accomplished fundraiser and the acknowledged strategist behind her husband Bill's finances. Until June 1, Suzie worked full-time as a professional fundraiser at Springer Associates, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that organizes campaign financing for eight members of the House, including Bill Brewster.

During much of 1993 and 1994, Brewster paid Springer $3,000 a month to help the campaign pull in funds from Washington PACs and lobbyists. "Suzie is as good at it as anybody I've ever seen," says Maggie Springer, the firm's owner. Together, Springer and Suzie Brewster organized the April 26 "Oklahoma Round-Up," putting together a steering committee of industry givers, sending out invitations, making telephone calls, keeping track of the money, and filling out the required FEC forms.

The secret of Washington fundraising, Springer says, is to develop relationships with the key people in the PAC community. Raising money from PACs is kind of a mutual dance. For the most part, PACs budget donations to political campaigns on an annual basis, keeping in mind the $10,000 limit per cycle -- but they rarely tell the members of Congress what they have budgeted for them.

"And having budgeted doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to give," Springer says. "They then sit back and wait to be asked. Nobody gives unless they're asked. So that's the first thing, to make sure that all the right people get asked."

Springer adds, "We have a rule around here that everybody is touched twice, once by mail and once by phone." Keeping track of trends and issues, sensing when particular PACs or industries are more or less interested in making donations, knowing how much money a PAC has available overall, even being aware of the degree of sensitivity to public perception about influence peddling -- all these are things that political fundraisers must keep in mind.

"And," she says, "with PAC directors with whom I have a relationship, I can call them at the beginning of the cycle and say, 'How much have you budgeted for Bill Brewster and how do you want to give it?'"

As an example of the relationship that develops between a member and a PAC, consider United Parcel Service (UPS), which operates one of the largest PACs. Since 1991, UPS PAC has funneled $17,500 into Brewster's two campaigns. Arnold Wellman of UPS's government affairs unit says the company has worked with Brewster since the 1980s, when he helped sponsor tax incentives for converting the carrier's fleet of trucks to alternative fuels. During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which UPS strongly backed, the company lobbied hard, and successfully, to win Brewster's vote. But Wellman stresses that because Brewster has a longstanding relationship with UPS, because he has visited UPS' facility in the Third district "not once but a number of times," and because he is always accessible and "visits with our people" -- all of that means more to the company than whether he votes "yes" or "no" on a particular issue. The PAC money, he says, "is a way for us to support candidates who are willing to listen to our point of view."

It is Brewster's relationship to the oil and gas industry that best exemplifies the true nature of the relationship between lawmakers and monied interests. As important as Oklahoma oil men like Harold Holden and Mike Cantrell are to Brewster, lobbyists and PACs representing members of the petroleum industry are the ones who now swing the really big money into the Brewster campaign fund. Since 1990, PACs from the oil and gas industry and related energy interests have poured more than $145,000 into Brewster's treasury.

Spokesmen for oil companies, on and off the record, state frankly that they coordinate on an almost daily basis with Bill Brewster and his staff, particularly Pat Raffaniello.

"In his brief time in Washington he's done a good job in representing the industry," says Don Duncan of Phillips. In February, Duncan joined a couple of dozen representatives of the oil and gas industry at a fundraising breakfast in Washington for Brewster. A steering committee comprised of Jean Mastres of Occidental Petroleum and Pete Frank of Kerr-McGee shepherded the major oil producers into a room where the lobbyists spent about 90 minutes with the congressman. Attendees included Chevron, Shell, Exxon, Texaco, Sun, Phillips, Kerr-McGee, Occidental, Conoco and others, including transporters and retailers. "We all know each other," says Mastres, making it easy to put together an event. A minimum donation to Brewster of $500 was the price of admission.

In a curious turn of phrase, Mastres said that they met as "concerned constituents, if you will, not just constituents of Oklahoma but constituents of the energy industry." It is almost as if Brewster were elected to represent not the people of Oklahoma's Third District, but the oil and gas industry.

The breakfast occurred at a critical moment for the oil industry. World oil prices were near historic lows, and many oil producers were clamoring for lower taxes, production incentives, and relief from government regulation. Small producers, like those in the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) were especially concerned about the collapse in prices. The big producers, along with pipeline operators, drillers, retailers, and others all had their concerns.

Bluntly, Mastres says that at times like that "you always look for someone (like Brewster) that can, quote, 'carry the water' on an issue." And carry the water he did. In a series of meetings, Brewster agreed to gather the combined concerns of the oil and gas industry into a single list of preferred reforms and tax changes. Working alongside IPAA and the major producers, he helped organize a bloc of 117 members of Congress determined to bring the oil industry's issues to the attention of the White House.

"They call it the Boren-Brewster tax package," Mastres says, adding that it includes tax cuts, tax incentives and regulatory relief. "It's sort of a wish list. This is the combined wish list for the industry." And the package, which would cost the U.S. Treasury $3 billion over 5 years, would probably not have seen the light of day had it not been for the two Oklahomans, Rep. Bill Brewster and Sen. David Boren.

Brewster had already earned a reputation as a bold defender of the oil industry in 1993, during the battle over the Clinton administration's proposal to enact an energy tax, called a BTU tax. Brewster astonished oil industry representatives by going directly to President Clinton, securing a face-to-face meeting at which he convinced the president to shift the point of collection for the BTU tax away from the producer and directly onto the bill that each consumer receives from the utilities. Not only did his action propose to save billions of dollars for the oil industry, but it made it easier for the industry to kill the tax entirely later on in the legislative process. Overnight, Brewster was a hero.

Don Duncan of Phillips cites Brewster's action as a "glowing example" of Brewster's record of support. "Here all of a sudden a freshman [on Ways and Means] goes directly to the president," he marvelled.

Duncan is quick to say that it would be wrong to consider what Brewster did as a quid pro quo for the oil industry's support. "It's not like the old days, [where] you give a guy a contribution and he's yours for life," says Duncan. "Members are more independent, and the nature of lobbying has changed drastically." Instead, he says, "The whole idea behind campaign giving is, you give to the members ... who you feel best represent your interests."

But if money does not produce immediate favors, too many votes in the wrong direction by a member of Congress can lead to an abrupt halt in the flow of campaign funds. Says Duncan, "If a member ... is gonna cast a vote that's really gonna hurt you, I've been known to call and say, 'I told you I'm coming to your event. I'm not.'" Duncan says that he receives eight to ten invitations a week to fundraisers, and he carefully examines the record of the member before recommending to Phillips' PAC that they contribute.

Another oil company PAC director is equally blunt. "If I see a vote or two votes that are diametrically opposed to a position that we've taken very strongly, I'll report back to the PAC that I think we should rescind their decision to give them money," he says.

It's a busy day on Capitol Hill. The House is just hours away from a vote on whether or not to ban certain types of automatic weapons, and Bill Brewster is hunting for votes to kill the ban. It's beginning to look bad for Brewster's side, however, and an aide tells him that they have just lost another handful of votes.

But Brewster keeps an appointment for an interview, and we sit down in a noisy corner of an antechamber in the Capitol.

It is immediately clear that Brewster does not think much of the various reforms that are being bandied about to deal with the public's perception that Congress is beholden to monied special interests. I ask him why he voted against a recent proposal to reform lobbying and prohibit gifts to members of Congress. "I think it's ludicrous that somebody takes the attitude that if you take a lunch or dinner with a lobbyist, that you can be bought," he says. "That you can be bought for any price."

One of the reforms, I note, would have barred members from accepting three- and four-day, all-expense-paid trips to resort hotels to attend conventions organized by lobbyists. Brewster, since coming to Washington, has taken at least 30 such trips; during 1993, for instance, he visited Palm Springs on the tab of the Tobacco Institute; Palm Beach, paid for by Philip Morris; Sarasota, Florida, for the American Medical Association; along with three other Florida trips, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, all paid for by lobbyists.

"I do give speeches to constituents," he replies. "As to where they hold their conventions, uh, I don't guess that I have any control over where they hold them." I refrain from pointing out that little or no tobacco is grown in Oklahoma, so it is difficult to describe the Tobacco Institute or Philip Morris as "constituents" of his. (In fact, since 1990 Brewster has accepted more than $17,000 in tobacco money and, from his position on Ways and Means he has opposed plans to jack up federal taxes on cigarettes.)

Asked why he voted for campaign finance reform in 1992, when it was certain to be vetoed by President Bush, and then against an almost identical bill in 1993, when President Clinton said he would sign such a bill into law, Brewster says, "Because it had public financing in it the second time around... When you get into public finance, or welfare for politicians, I have a problem." But Brewster is wrong: the 1992 bill did include a provision for public financing, yet many of those who oppose reform in the House voted for it, knowing that it would die in the White House.

Confidently, Brewster says that he can run and win no matter what reformers do. "We can play within whatever rules they set. If they eliminate PACs, we'll go participate however they want," he says. "I can make it up. Any way they want to do it... We'll just go fundraise from those individuals in those particular industries, same way."

Brewster could begin with the health care industry. Although there are no known drug manufacturers in the Oklahoma's Third district, during 1993-94 Brewster has accepted a total of more than $15,000 in PAC money from Abbott, Ciga-Geigy, Eli Lilly, Glaxo, Hoffman-LaRoche, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Pfizer, Sandoz and many others. In all, Brewster has pocketed $139,000 from health care industry PACs since 1990, and hundreds of thousands more from business groups that oppose health care reform and, in particular, any plan that includes a mandate requiring employers to provide health insurance for their employees.

Brewster is implacably opposed to almost all versions of health care reform. How many people in your district don't have health insurance? I ask. He hesitates, talks to an aide, and replies that in a survey that his office sent out to Third district voters, 12 percent of those who replied said they lack insurance. (The actual figure for the state of Oklahoma is 18 percent, according to Census Bureau data, and in the Third district it is over 20 percent.) The plan that Brewster supports would leave that figure unchanged.

So it goes. Brewster has a string of votes in Congress that dovetail almost perfectly with the wishes of his contributors: he voted against the family leave bill, against the ban on striker replacement, against the Clinton administration's 1993 stimulus plan, against a cut in Star Wars funding, against a proposal to shut down NASA's space station, against extended unemployment benefits, and for NAFTA. More important, in crucial committee and subcommittee bargaining, he has aggressively promoted the agenda of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce, the oil industry, and others.

Among Among people concerned about jobs, crime, health care, and schools, campaign finance reform has not yet become a priority. Ellen Miller, who heads the Center for Responsive Politics, says that Americans have yet to realize what it costs them when PACs and wealthy individuals are able to set the agenda for what gets debated in Congress. "People have to understand that the ability of these special interests to influence what happens in Congress affects their jobs, it affects how much money there is to fix up their towns, to provide help to people who need it," she says.

Tax breaks and subsidies for industries, she says, add $35 billion to the cost of energy, $30 billion to food costs, and billions more to the cost of nearly everything we buy, Miller says. A small campaign contribution of a few thousand dollars can result in a tax break worth tens of millions, she says. Only when people grasp the immediate pocketbook cost of the current patterns of campaign finance will they demand that the system be fixed.

When they do, they could throw their support behind one of several alternatives. One option would be public financing of campaigns modelled on the system now used for presidential elections, coupled with strict regulation of so-called soft money donations. This would eliminate the need for private money and provide the government with constitutional authority to regulate private fundraising. Almost every public interest group supports a version of this reform; even veteran fundraisers concede such rules would make a big difference. Alas, a similar proposal was advanced by the Clinton administration in 1993. Congress, thanks to resistance by lawmakers like Brewster, wanted nothing to do with it. Now, the issue has all but fallen off the radar screen.

Cynical voters seem indifferent to charges of corruption and campaign finance abuses. If Bill Brewster's backers did indeed play fast and loose with FEC rules, will his constituents care? A source at the FEC thinks not. "Oklahoma is one of those states, like Kentucky and Louisiana, where political corruption is seen more as theater or sport than as something to worry about," he says. "If you get caught, you're considered stupid, not bad." And, except in rare instances, the FEC has little power to impose stiff sanctions on campaign violators; instead, the FEC counts on the bad publicity associated with an FEC finding of wrongdoing to rile up voters. Often, that fails.

Asked about the prevailing notion of campaign finance abuses and political ethics in Oklahoma, a leading politician quotes Huey Long: "Never write to a man that you can talk to, never talk to a man that you can whisper to, and never whisper to a man that you can wink at." Whether Oklahomans wink at Bill Brewster remains to be seen.

The success of politicians who make maximum use of the current campaign finance system epitomizes a terrible paradox about American politics. Interest groups that can deliver large campaign contributions are well represented. Ordinary people feel unrepresented, and their dismay and disaffection have been growing. Yet despite public disaffection, declining voter turnout, and the scattered appearance of populist reform movements, the electorate fails to send to Congress the kind of people who might correct the system of campaign finance that is at the root of their own disenchantment.

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